Narelle Plapp

A Q&A with Food for Health

As a practising naturopath, Narelle Plapp was astonished how many people did not understand the value of good, nutritious and functional food for their health and wellbeing. With a burning desire to help her patients, Narelle began a muesli business with two very successful muesli recipes and now heads an extremely successful multinational company.

As a mum, Narelle is passionate about nutrition and healthy food, and has a strong understanding of and empathy for working mothers. In this interview, Narelle recalls how she began Food for Health, how she grew personally from the business, and why she is big on flexibility and how working mums can contribute effectively to any enterprise.

You started your career as a naturopath and now you run a muesli company. How did this journey begin?

While I was studying I worked for a Health food store. Once I finished my degree, and still fairly young, I had an opportunity to buy a health food shop. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and went for it. I had my practice attached to the shop and I developed two recipes for my patients at that time to take Home with them as part of their treatment plan. This was 20 years ago and there was not a big selection of good nutritious cereal available, so I created these two recipes and the results my patients got were fabulous.

I did that for about eight years in my stores and it kind of took off. That was how I went from a naturopath to a health food store owner to a muesli person. I still had the stores and the patients and then I decided to go with the muesli and create a brand, and suddenly I had this multinational muesli business.

What were the challenges you faced in those early days?

Many challenges, I suppose. One was that when I launched this business I still had my clinic and my health food store, so I was very busy. I remember working till about 2am or 3am and then going back to work at 9am. However, I was very passionate about what I wanted to achieve so I was willing to put in the hard work. That was difficult as it was just me with the passion and the vision and I couldn’t afford to have anyone in my muesli business then – so it was all me. It was tough during those early years.

…for me it’s about believing in myself and finding solutions to problems as opposed to giving up.

Other challenges were understanding the commercial realities about cereal and pricing, and dealing with the Coles and the Woolworths of the world. When you first have an opportunity to present to Woolworths, you get very excited without understanding the commercial realties that come with that win. So in those early days it was all about commercial pricing, which was a challenge for me and of course for a couple of years it cost me, but now I’m very across that and very across what Woolworths charges and I understand a lot more. It’s a big learning curve from being a naive naturopath to dealing with Coles and Woollies.

Tell me about your products?

Our motto at Food for Heath is ‘We are passionate about health for everyone’, and this is true for all of our product development. We have our core range of about seven cereals ranging from low-sugar muesli to fruit-free to gluten-free clusters. We have a really good array of cereal. We brought the first FODMAP bar to market about seven years ago, so we do support people with food allergies. We are very big on treating allergies and we always make sure we are true to our core values and stay true to health. There are a lot of products out there that are gluten-free but they are not really healthy, so it’s important to provide healthier options for people’s daily requirements.

How do your products compare to other natural and health foods in the category?

Our brand is very much in the mid to high-end range. We would probably be one of the most expensive mueslis in the supermarket, and that’s because we use functional ingredients. A lot of our products are gluten-free and not oat-based as oats are quite a cheap ingredient. You’ll find a lot of muesli products out there have oats, but we tend to use other ingredients like rice bran, sorghum and teff, and other really nutritious ingredients. I’m a big fan of oats but from a commercial point of view, oats are cheap.

We also don’t bind our muesli bars with glucose. Again, glucose is a cheap binder. We bind all our muesli bars with rice bran syrup, which is double the price of glucose, but it is also better for the body. People who are on a FODMAP diet with glucose malabsorption can have rice bran syrup but they can’t have glucose. You pay a little extra for the product but there is a reason behind it. Why do we do it? It helps people with severe food allergies and those looking for low-sugar products.

You have an expanding business which has reached international shores. To what do you owe your success?

It hasn’t always been an easy ride and as with any business, it has been up and down. My business certainly turned a big corner in the last couple of years. We are 10 years old and for the first eight years it was dollar to dollar. In the last two years we’ve had really good success internationally and domestically, but for me it’s about believing in myself and finding solutions to problems as opposed to giving up. Those who know me will say that I am a fighter and won’t take no for an answer and now I am stronger for that. I think any good business leader is someone who will provide solutions for their team.

I also wouldn’t have the success I have now without the team I have around me. I have core people to support my weaknesses and I support theirs, so together we accomplish a lot.

What unique business strategies do you use to forge ahead?

We are all human, right? I treat my staff like they are part of my family. I am very transparent and very honest with everyone. We do everything together and if anyone has a win, we’ll celebrate that win together. I’m a big believer in doing what you love and believing in yourself. I didn’t do this for the money because the money only started rolling in after eight or nine years of really hard work, with no real reward from a financial point of view in those early days. If I hadn’t kept pushing in those first eight years, I wouldn’t be here today, so I think it’s really just about having the strength and the confidence in yourself to keep going.

As a mum you understand the need for flexibility. Do you incorporate that at work?

Flexibility is something I am really passionate about. Ninety per cent of my team at the moment are working mums and I think a working mother has a lot to offer. You give a busy woman something to do and she gets it done because she only has a certain amount of time. Women are also very good multi-taskers.

I believe there should be a lot of give and take, especially for working mums.

I drop my two boys at school every day and that’s something I will keep doing, so I don’t get to work until about 9.15 and that’s ok – I don’t feel guilty about that. I have found that one of the things working mums suffer from is guilt. I tell all of my team members that if their child has something on, maybe a school sport event or school carnival, they should go or they’d feel guilty about not being there and probably would not be proactive at work anyway.

I believe there should be a lot of give and take, especially for working mums. We can’t reward them with dollars through remuneration, but we can give them flexibility and appreciation. My workers have always been allowed to leave up to half an hour early or arrive half an hour late because of something important for their children, and this resonates with people’s lives.

I believe women can have it all if they are given the flexibility at work; I have mums coming in five hours a day and they get so much work done. They get in, they get it done and they get out. If bigger businesses understood the potential of working mums and what they can provide for their company, it would be a different world.

What does a day in your life look like?

I’m a big advocate of keeping fit and healthy, so I run most mornings at 6am before my children are up and before my husband leaves for his job. I’m lucky to live near the beach in Melbourne, so that is 45 minutes of my time in the morning.

Then it’s just the usual routine – kids to school, breakfast, lunch boxes – typical mum mornings, and then I’m in the office. Any day in the office will be different – I can be in production meetings, marketing meetings or sales meetings. I now have a team of eight to manage, which I love. Each day brings surprises, which is something I really thrive on. I leave the office at 5.30 on most days. I tend not to have a lunch break, which is probably not great, so I’m out the door at 5.30 and get home to my children. Then it’s dinner time, bath time, and by about 10pm I sit at my laptop again for an hour to finish off my day. The next morning it starts all over again. The weekend is for family – full of sports and just getting that quality time with my children and my husband.

Is there anything special that you do in your downtime?

My husband works for the AFL so we are both into fitness. Our children are also into sports so in our downtime we spend time at the beach, and we are fortunate to have a beach house. I also do a lot of running and enjoy spending time with family and friends.

You are a naturopath – do you embrace other natural therapies or practices?

I really like homoeopathy. I believe in it and I use it a lot for my family and friends. It is something which resonates with me. Obviously nutrition is a huge aspect of naturopathy, too, and is very important to me.

What do you have in store for Food for Health’s future?

Bigger companies do contract manufacturing, so we are currently looking at our own infrastructure – building our own facilities and keeping everything in-house .That’s been my big project for the past couple of years. It’s exciting for Food for Health as we will have better control over the quality of our products, and better relationships with our farmers. This has been a massive job for me over the last couple of years and we are just near the moving stage, which is pretty exciting. I’m also going from an eight-member team to a 35-member team, so that will be a big change.

Investing in our infrastructure and our machinery is what we are really excited about, because it gives us better quality and better control over our own products as opposed to having contract manufacturers like most muesli brands you see on the shelf. At the moment we are negotiating with a massive chain in China, so that will be a big turning point for Food for Health.

Our strategy is obviously to stay true to our products here in Australia and to continue to build products in line with our ethos. Export is also a big part of our growth strategy now that we have the infrastructure and the capabilities to produce more products for our customers overseas.

Meena Azzollini

Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!

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